Leadership Well-Being And Excellence


Prof Theo H Veldsman

Department of Industrial Psychology

and People Management, Faculty of

Management, University of Johannesburg

Prof Theo Veldsman joined us in the CliffCentral Leadership Platform studio to discuss his article captured below as well as other related leadership issues.  A fascinating conversation ensued:

Listen here – Part 1

Listen here – Part 2

1. Do we recognise the complexity and multi-dimensionality of leaders as human beings?

Leaders need to be viewed in terms of three interdependent, capability dimensions:

  • Competence: Potential / Aptitude and Proficiency relative to Knowledge, Skills and Personal Attributes
  • Well Being/ Fitness: Level of Healthiness (= Resilience)
  • Maturity: Appropriateness of conduct relative to context, specific situation and stakeholders concerned. I.e., wisdom or savvy

Using a sports analogy:

  • Competence pertains to one’s natural and developed ability to participate in general in a certain type of event (marathons in general);
  • Fitness to one’s   readiness to participate in a specific event on a given day (today’s specific marathon I want to run); and
  • Wisdom to how one decides to use one’s Competence and Fitness on the actual day in competing in this specific event (how must I run today’s marathon given my assessment of the conditions I face and my own state).

All three capability dimensions have to be viewed within the framework of the five domains of functioning of the leader:

  • Religious: Ultimate Values, Truths & Beliefs
  • Spiritual: Life fulfilling Meanings, Purpose and Calling, Life Values
  • Socio-cultural: social-national-ethnic beliefs, values, norms and ways of doing things. Are we a formal or relaxed culture, rational or emotional, respect authority or challenge it
  • Psycho-social: Personality, Motivational, Emotional, Cognitive, Attitudinal Make-up
  • Physiological/ Biological: Temperament, Metabolic Rhythms
  • Physical: Height, Weight, Gender, Colour, Age, Attractiveness Intervention:

Leaders go wrong when they do not recognise the complexity and multi-dimensionality of them as human being, and only focus on one dimension, e.g., the psychosocial, or the physiological.


  • Leaders to adopt mind set of a total person, paying attention to all dimensions, equally

2. How does leadership competence impact on overall leadership well-being and excellence?

If leadership wish to demonstrate continued Leadership Well-being and Excellence as they move to more complex, higher Levels of Work, they have to:

  • move from Transactional (How), though Transformational (What: Vision) to Transcendental leadership (Why/ Whereto: Purpose, Meaning); AND
  • move from their competency mix from predominantly Technical/ Professional Competencies to a dominance of Personal, Interpersonal and Organisational Competencies

Leadership well-being and excellence is affected detrimentally by leaders not making these crucial transitions.


  • Comprehensive, ongoing, blended Leadership development
  • Assisting leaders with making transition

3. How does leadership fitness impact on overall leadership well-being and excellence?

Fitness is about resilience: the ability to take pressure; bounce back; adapt. Fitness of body, mind, spirit and heart.

Resilient persons have the following characteristics:

  • a strong core set of beliefs that nothing can shake
  • seek meaning in whatever is stressful or traumatic
  • positive/ can do attitude/ outlook
  • learn from others that are especially resilient
  • face up to the things that scare them
  • reach out quickly for help when things go haywire/ wrong
  • keep on learning faster than the pace of change – not same past success recipes repeated over and over again even though world has changed – reflective living
  • have a regular exercise regime they stick to
  • do not mull on past, especially failures, and berate oneself: move on
  • know their strengths, development areas, and weaknesses. Find those that can complement their weaknesses; invest in development


  • Enough exercise (3 to 4, 30-45 minutes exercise sessions per week),
  • Enough sleep (6-7 hours/ day)
  • Correct eating
  • Personal reflection time (1 day per month appointment with self as “client” to reflect on events to turn experiences into information; information into knowledge; knowledge into wisdom)
  • Regular leisure, vacations/ holidays
  • Sabbatical (every 5 years or so)

 4. How does leadership wisdom impact on overall leadership well-being and excellence?

Wisdom is the knowing how to get right things done with the right people at the right time in the right way. Being street wise, “savviness”.

Wisdom is function of a leader’s level of psychosocial maturity. The highest level of psychosocial maturity is a state of being:

  • a whole person, finding meaning in what one does
  • accept the full complexity of the world with an “And” , and not an “Either-Or” approach
  • in the process empowering him/ herself and others as whole persons, and
  • fully accepting him/ herself warts and all.

Jim Collins entitled this highest level of leadership maturity “Level 5 Leadership”: leadership serving the longer term, greater good with humbleness, and pursuing this greater good with a relentless passion. Level 5 leadership has moved beyond serving his/ her own self-interest: the manifestation of servant (or steward) leadership.   Levels 1 to 4 Leadership refer to a movement from showing that one can lead through to demonstrating that one can realise a vision. A vision, however, still carries a heavy parochial, self-interested flavour because the interests served are those of not the leadership but of the organisation.


  • Working alongside wise leaders: shadowing
  • Mentoring
  • Coaching
  • Stretch assignments
  • Cross functional/ cross organisational assignments
  • Personal reflection time
  • Sabbatical

5. What are the danger signs? Leadership Burnout, Derailment and Toxicity

Leadership derailment and burnout

Organisational derailment refers to the external manifestation of failed leadership. Burnout refers to the internal experience of the leader. A leader experiences burnout when his/her energy runs out. Burnout is usually caused by being overstressed for extended periods of time. The reported incidence of burnout amongst business leaders is at alarming levels.

Organisational derailment (“the organisation rejecting me as a leader”) and burnout (“me failing as a leader because I am unable to cope”) are not of necessity related. A leader may be rejected by his/ her organisation, but not be burnt out. Or be burnt out but not be derailed.

Behavioural indicators of organisational derailment

(“Organisation rejecting me”)


  • Isolation from reality – too much information   filtering taking place – Leader surrounded by liars: people who tell the leader what he/ she want to hear
  • Misfit with context/ complexity

Given Make-up as a leader

  • Low tolerance for ambiguity
  • Volatility/ Moodiness
  • Too much dependence on approval – conflict avoidance
  • Overdependence on natural ability

Leadership Style

  • Impulsiveness
  • Arrogance
  • Defensiveness

Leadership Behaviour

  • Micro managing
  • Self promote
  • Eccentricity
  • Lack of self perception/ awareness
  • Aversion to risk
  • Lack of Integrity
  • Abrasive – tyranisation of followers – the “bulldozer”
  • Hyperactive – pushing self and others to limit – passion running wild
  • Generational envy – resentment of young upstarts
  • Pervasive and unwarranted suspicion of others (“disease of kings”)


  • Lack of/ poor performance feedback
  • Feeling that I as a leader am falling short of others’ expectations – I will eventually be caught out
  • Collusive followers – persons ganging up against a leader
  • Poor transitions – not letting go of existing and/ or embracing new


(“Me failing”)

  •  Emotional exhaustion
  • Constant irritability
  • Lack of energy to face challenges, issues, problems
  • Depersonalisation of experiences & reality: Spectator watching a movie
  • Sense of low personal accomplishment
  • Sense of meaninglessness

A test of work engagement

(Adapted from source: Utrecht Work Engagement Scale – Schaufeli and Bakker, 2003)

1. At work I feel that I burst with energy
2. I find the work that I do full of meaning and purpose
3. Time flies when I am working
4. At my work, I feel strong and vigorous
5. I am enthusiastic about my job
6. When I am working, I forget everything else around me
7. My work inspires me
8. When I get up in the morning , I feel like going to work
9. I feel happy when I am working intensely
10. I am proud of the work I do
11. I am immersed in my work
12. I can continue working for very long periods at a time
13. To me, my job is challenging
14. I get carried away when I am working
15. At my job, I am very resilient, mentally and emotionally
16. It is difficult to detach myself from my job
17. At my work I always persevere, even when things do not go well

Leadership Toxicity

The word “toxic” comes from the German “toxikon” which means “arrow poison”. In a literal sense, the term in its original form thus means to kill (=poison) in a targeted way (=arrow). Toxic leadership refers to ongoing, deliberate, intentional actions (the “arrow”) by a leader(ship) to undermine the sense of dignity, self-worth and efficacy of an individual(s) (the “poison”). This results in destructive, devaluing and demeaning work experiences. Such destructive actions may be physical, psychosocial and/or spiritual (i.e., meaning/purpose). Toxic leadership therefore represents the “dark” side of leadership.

A Toxic Organisation is an organisation which by its very nature and dynamics erodes, disables and destroys the physiological, psychosocial and spiritual wellbeing of its organisational members in permanent and deliberate ways. In other words, an organisation becomes metaphorically a “poison pill” to organisational members.

In contrast to toxic leadership, a healthy, authentic leadership is leader(ship) that nurtures and affirms the dignity, worth and efficacy of an individual(s), concurrently creating enabling, empowering and meaningful work experiences. Correspondingly, a healthy, authentic organisation is an organisation that nurtures and grows the physiological, psychosocial and spiritual wellbeing of its organisational members, making and leaving its members better persons than when they entered the organisation.

Work place bullying – a popular research area in recent times – is a similar concept to toxic leadership, but more centred on individual, one-on-one, physical and/or emotional abuse by any one individual (including a leader) on another person(s). Hence work place bullying is but one form of toxic leadership when the bullying is done by leadership.

Five typical toxic leaders exist:

  1. Cold Fish: The ends justifies the means;
  2. Snake: The world serves me;
  3. Glory Seeker: Personal glory at any cost;
  4. Puppet Master: Absolute control under all circumstances; and
  5. Monarch: Ruling the organisation as my kingdom.

Six typical toxic organisations can be distinguished:

  1. Paranoid: the defensive, afraid, suspicious organisation;
  2. Compulsive: the overplanned, over-programmed organisation;
  3. Hyperactive: the impulsive, unfocused organisation;
  4. Deflated: the energyless, impotent organisation;
  5. Delusional: the reality estranged, make-believe organisation; and
  6. the Conscienceless: the unethical, amoral organisation.

6. What are The Ultimate Leadership Well-being and Excellence Questions?

Ultimately the leader at the end of his/ her leadership career must be able to answer in the affirmative to the following five questions:

  1. Have I retained my well being/ health in all Domains of my Being/ Becoming, e.g. physical, physiological, psychosocial, spiritual, religious?
  2. I am still with those persons who are supposed to be close to me?
  3. Have I been able to live my chosen core values with integrity?
  4. Have I used my talents well?
  5. Have I left an enduring, meaningful legacy


Leaders have to ask themselves these questions once a year throughout their career in their personal reflection sessions.

Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on adriaan@leadershipplatform.com for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation.




Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022
Email: info@leadershipplatform.com

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Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


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